Yesterday, I sat down and watched Edward Murrow’s famous half-hour takedown of Senator Joseph McCarthy from back in 1954. I had heard about this report for years, with it being a classic of both television journalism, but also good takedowns in general. About how one man on CBS managed to take down the most powerful ideologue in the United States. And about how Murrow risked his career to stand up to one of the most obnoxious liars in the United States.
The report aired on 3/9/1954, when McCarthy was still at the top of his power. Just a few months before the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings, which led to McCarthy being censured by the Senate, there’s no doubt that Murrow had much influence in diminishing McCarthy’s reputation among the common American.
People forget just how big of an impact McCarthy had, especially within the Republican Party. His strong anti-communist influence was necessary for getting his fellow red-baiting nut Richard Nixon to be Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952. (Eisenhower had to break through the Republican establishment, who primarily wanted Senator Robert Taft or General Douglas MacArthur. Although Eisenhower won in the end, he ended up having to pick one of the most disgusting establishment Republicans in the United States and the loudest mouth on HUAC.) Eisenhower, despite hating McCarthy, actually had to campaign with him in order to get the votes of many Republicans, who feared that he’d be soft on communism considering he fought with the Ally powers against Nazi Germany — one of the Allies being Joseph Stalin.
Exactly what McCarthy’s deal was is still debated among historians. Richard Rovere, in his amazing biography from 1959 titled Senator Joe McCarthy, lays out the theory that McCarthy was a compulsive liar who simply could not help himself. One example cited is McCarthy’s run for local judge, where McCarthy commonly lied about the age of his opponent and the incumbent, sometimes making him out to be decades older than he actually was, in spite of his age being a matter of public record.
Another theory paints McCarthy as deeply paranoid, pointing out how he always kept a series of documents on hand that alone proved nothing but together, McCarthy promised, would prove the entire Communist conspiracy. (Together, the documents also commonly proved nothing.) McCarthy truly believed he was right, and considered himself to be a proud patriot, but he was just insane.
Since McCarthy’s fall, some hard-right commentators have tried to paint him as a man slandered by the media. William F. Buckley, author of McCarthy and His Enemies in 1954, a book which heavily defended McCarthy against his critics, said up until his death in 2008 that one of these days McCarthy will be proven right. Meanwhile, people like Ann Coulter and Larry Schweikart even argue that McCarthy has already been vindicated. As Ann Coulter said in 2005:
Since I described McCarthy as a great American patriot defamed by liberals in my 2003 book, “Treason,” liberals have had two more years to produce a person — just one person — falsely accused by McCarthy. They still can’t do it.
Dean Acheson and Adlai Stevenson could not be reached for comment.
I will say that if McCarthy ever did make a point, it was only by dumb luck. Best case scenario, his basic claim about former Communists being in the State Department had some truth to it (not much considering the State Department had already done two very through purges of leftists just a few years earlier, but some). However, anytime McCarthy got into anything more specific than that, he either lied, contradicted himself, or made things up as he went along.
The most obvious example is his infamous list of just over two-hundred Communists in the State Department. In truth, the list never existed and the document he was holding up on that day was a letter to President Truman that never once used the word “communism.” McCarthy later changed the number of exactly how many communists were in the State Department, and that number never once went up.
It’s impossible not to notice that many of McCarthy’s few remaining defenders cannot even defend his claims. Any document Ann Coulter ever cites “proving McCarthy correct” is always something McCarthy would have had no way of knowing about. She once said all the proof came out after the fall of the Soviet Union. This is the same tactic M. Stanton Evans used in his 2007 book Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies. Any document listed as “proving McCarthy correct” is something that was made public over three-decades after McCarthy died. For the record, none of the documents ever cited actually proved McCarthy correct in anything but the most general manner — but let’s be generous for a minute and instead ask how McCarthy got top-secret Soviet documents in the first place. Even if McCarthy were right (and once again, he was not) that wouldn’t make him any more honest.
The second McCarthy got into the weeds, even slightly, he would quickly be shown to have no idea what he’s talking about. This is why Murrow’s special worked so well, instead of focusing on the main point of McCarthy’s crusade, he showed a large number of small things that proved McCarthy was jumping in without asking for facts. Rather it was his claims of “liberal media” slandering him (gee, where have we heard this before?) to his odd claim that Adlai Stevenson was a communist because of a map in his cabin, Murrow showed us that McCarthy was making things up as he went along instead of actually looking for truth. This entire exchange with Reed Harris is what happens when McCarthy goes against someone who knows better:
MCCARTHY: May we come to order. Mr. Reed Harris? Your name is Reed Harris?
REED HARRIS: That’s correct.
MCCARTHY: You wrote a book in ’32, is that correct?
HARRIS: Yes, I wrote a book. And as I testified in executive session —
MCCARTHY: At the time you wrote the book — pardon me, go ahead. I’m sorry.
HARRIS: At the time I wrote the book, the atmosphere in the universities of the United States was greatly affected by the Great Depression then in existence. The attitudes of students, the attitudes of the general public, were considerably different than they are at this moment, and for one thing there certainly was no awareness to the degree that there is today of the way the Communist Party works.
MCCARTHY: You attended Columbia University in the early thirties. Is that right?
HARRIS: I did, Mr. Chairman.
MCCARTHY: Will you speak a little louder, sir?
HARRIS: I did, Mr. Chairman.
MCCARTHY: And were you expelled from Columbia?
HARRIS: I was suspended from classes on April 1, 1932. I was later reinstated, and I resigned from the university.
MCCARTHY: And you resigned from the university. Did the Civil Liberties Union provide you with an attorney at that time?
HARRIS: I had many offers of attorneys, and one of those was from the American Civil Liberties Union, yes.
MCCARTHY: The question is did the Civil Liberties Union supply you with an attorney?
HARRIS: They did supply an attorney.
MCCARTHY: The answer is yes?
HARRIS: The answer is yes.
MCCARTHY: You know the Civil Liberties Union has been listed as “a front for, and doing the work of,” the Communist Party?
For the record, the ACLU was never once listed as “a front for, and doing the work of” the Communist Party by any government agency when McCarthy made this statement. In fact, their work had previously been praised by known anti-communist Douglas MacArthur among many other top politicians.
HARRIS: Mr. Chairman, this was 1932.
MCCARTHY: Yeah, I know this was 1932. Do you know that they since have been listed as a front for, and doing the work of, the Communist Party?
HARRIS: I do not know that they have been listed so, sir.
MCCARTHY: You don’t know they have been listed?
HARRIS: I have heard that mentioned, or read that mentioned.
MCCARTHY: Now, you wrote a book in 1932. I’m going to ask you again. At the time you wrote this book, did you feel that professors should be given the right to teach sophomores that marriage, let me quote, “should be cast out of our civilization as antiquated and stupid religious phenomena?” Was that your feeling at that time?
For those curious, McCarthy only took up the sacred tradition of marriage that he is now defending when he was accused by political rivals of being a homosexual.
HARRIS: My feeling was that professors should have the right to express their considered opinions on any subject, whatever they were, sir.
MCCARTHY: All right, I’m going to ask you this question again.
HARRIS: That includes that quotation. They should have the right to teach anything that came to their minds as being a proper thing to teach.
MCCARTHY: I’m going to make you answer this.
HARRIS: All right, I’ll answer yes, but you put an implication on it, and you feature this particular point out of the book which of course is quite out of context; does not give a proper impression of the book as a whole. The American public doesn’t get an honest impression of even that book, bad as it is, from what you’re quoting from it.
MCCARTHY: Well, then, let’s continue to read your own writing, and —
HARRIS: Twenty-one years ago, again.
MCCARTHY: Yes, but we’ll try and bring you down to date, if we can.
HARRIS: Mr. Chairman, two weeks ago, Senator Taft took the position that I took twenty-one years ago, that communists and socialists should be allowed to teach in the schools. It so happens that nowadays I don’t agree with Senator Taft as far as communist teaching in the schools is concerned, because I think communists are in effect a plainclothes auxiliary of the Red Army — the Soviet Red Army — and I don’t want to see them in any of our schools teaching.
MCCARTHY: I don’t recall Senator Taft ever having any of the backgrounds that you’ve got, sir.
MCCARTHY: I resent the tone of this inquiry very much, Mr. Chairman. I resent it, not only because it is my neck, my public neck, that you are, I think, very skillfully trying to wring, but I say it because there are thousands of able and loyal employees in the federal government of the United States who have been properly cleared according to the laws and the security practices of their agencies, as I was — unless the new regime says no — I was before.
SENATOR JOHN MCLELLAN: Do you think this book that you wrote then did considerable harm — its publication might have had adverse influence on the public by an expression of views contained in it?
HARRIS: The sale of that book was so abysmally small, it was so unsuccessful that a question of its influence — really, you can go back to the publisher. You’ll see it was one of the most unsuccessful books he ever put out. He’s still sorry about it, just as I am.
MCLELLAN: Well, I think that’s a compliment to American intelligence. I will say that to him.
(Hey Ann, is this the person falsely accused by McCarthy that you wanted?)
You’ll notice that quote was rather long, well that brings me to another thing of note, and that’s the fact that Murrow actually rarely interjected during his clips of McCarthy ranting. Much of the half-hour is made up of unedited clips of Senator McCarthy saying outlandish things, or getting embarrassed, or making accusations that were obviously wrong. Murrow would provide the context to what McCarthy was saying or provide the occasional fact-check, but it was primarily McCarthy who was doing himself in. McCarthy bluntly contradicting himself basically made up the entire first half of the special, with him being embarrassed at hearings making up a good amount of the rest.
This is why I do not agree with the people who say that Murrow brought down McCarthy, only McCarthy could bring down McCarthy. McCarthy had spent his political career building himself up as a demagogue (the phrase “McCarthyism” was actually popularized by him in reference to his “fight for America”) and only he could bring an end to his career. This is also why McCarthy had to rely so heavily on the claim of “liberal media” fighting against him when, as Murrow showed, they had actually been rather nice to him, but simply showed concern over his growing power:
Senator McCarthy claims that only the left wing press criticized him on the Zwicker case. Of the fifty large circulating newspapers in the country, these are the left wing papers that criticized him. These are the ones that supported him. The ratio is about three-to-one. Now let us look at some of these left wing papers that criticized the senator.
The Chicago Tribune: “McCarthy will better serve his cause if he learns to distinguish the role of investigator from the role of avenging angel.”
The New York Times: “The unwarranted interference of a demagogue…a domestic Munich.”
The Times Herald of Washington: “Senator McCarthy’s behavior towards Zwicker not justified.”
The Herald-Tribune of New York: “McCarthyism involves assaults on basic Republican concepts.”
The Milwaukee Journal: “The line must be drawn and defended or McCarthy will become the government.”
The Evening Star of Washington: “It was a bad day for everyone who resents and detests the bullyboy tactics which Senator McCarthy so often employees.”
The New York World-Telegram: “Bamboozling, bludgeoning, distorting way.”
The St. Louis Post Dispatch: “Unscrupulous McCarthy bullying. What a tragic irony it is that the president’s political advisers keep him from doing what every decent instinct must be commanding him to do.”
The power of letting one do himself in can not be overstated, many commentators today and interested in getting the next zinger against their least favorite politician, Murrow showed that this was not necessary. He watched as McCarthy made fatal mistake after fatal mistake, later compiling the mistakes together and then broadcasting them to the general public.
Honestly, I could go on about McCarthy and his failures for hours, and the failures of his defenders for much longer, but Murrow put it perfectly in his final speech of the special:
Earlier the senator asked, “Upon what meat does this, our Caesar, feed?” Had he looked three lines earlier in Shakespeare’s Caesar, he would have found this line, which is not altogether inappropriate: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind as between the internal and the external threats of communism.
We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities.
As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear. He merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Good night, and good luck.